Left to the Birds: The EU's Development Woes

By Zembowicz, Filip | Harvard International Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Left to the Birds: The EU's Development Woes


Zembowicz, Filip, Harvard International Review


The expansion of Europe's transportation network has exacerbated the conflict between the need for development and the need for environmental conservation. One clear example of this tension lies in the debate over Poland's proposed E67 highway bypass. This bypass would extend through the EU-protected Rospuda valley in northeastern Poland, which is home to lynx, wolves, and over 20 species of rare birds. Since the valley is on the EU's Natura 2000 list of endangered habitats, which aspires to maintain biodiversity in fragile ecosystems, the European Union has fined Poland and forced the country to halt construction at a preliminary stage. This confrontation demonstrates the EU's growing concern for the protection of nature. However, it also demonstrates that EU policy toward its member states often overemphasizes the conservation of small regions, thereby neglecting major sources of environmental damage.

The EU has designated Rospuda Valley as a Special Protection Area (SPA), which places the site on the Natura 2000 index of endangered habitats. However, the positive environmental impact of this label is questionable. According to the EU Environmental Commission, the hope is that drawing attention to these areas will lead to biodiversity and increased economic and social benefits from tourism. But unlike the land in national parks, the land in SPAs can still be utilized for commercial, residential, and even industrial projects--thereby contributing to the decline of the environment and correspondingly, of tourism. As a further concern, SPAs may not even be protecting the right ecosystems. A 2004 study in the Journal of Global Ecology and Biogeography has shown that the geographic distribution of SPAs often has weak correlations with hotspots of biodiversity. In spite of these inadequacies, Natura 2000 remains the cornerstone of the EU's environmental protection initiatives.

Natura 2000 can be used to inhibit transportation development in Poland and elsewhere in the EU. In 2005, Poland's congested roads sustained over 50.9 billion ton-kilometers of internationally-bound cargo, which was the fourth largest amount in Europe. The Polish environmental minister, Jan Szyszko, had initially ratified the Rospuda project in hopes of alleviating congestion and developing international cargo trade. Instead, the project was sent to the European Court of Justice. The suspension of work on route E67 is detrimental for both Poland and the EU because the road is a major conduit of cargo traffic from Russia, Finland, and the Baltic states. …

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